“Queen” Reigns Over Chicken Biosecurity

A poultry veterinarian dresses the part of "Biosecurity Queen” as she takes poultry-disease education on the road.

by Dani Yokhna
Dr. Julie Helm, DVM, kneels next to three kids and three chickens in a chicken coop
Courtesy Julie Helm
Dr. Julie Helm, DVM, travels to coops in South Carolina, donned in a silver tiara, to teach about the importance of biosecurity.

This week, the USDA is celebrating its annual Bird Health Awareness Week (Oct. 30, 2011 to Nov. 5, 2011) and there’s one veterinarian who is getting out the word about poultry health in a showstopping way.

Dr. Julie Helm, DVM, is South Carolina’s “Bioscurity Queen,” and she likes to dress the part. She wears a pageant-quality silver tiara and a beauty-pageant sash, but don’t look for an evening gown or a fancy up-do to complete the beauty-queen look. Her outfit consists of blue coveralls, a bouffant cap and boots.

In her 15th year as a poultry specialist veterinarian with Clemson University, Helm covers herself from head to toe to prevent the spread of disease when she visits farms. She wears the outfit in lecture halls to drive home her point about keeping chickens, turkeys and other types of poultry healthy. A few years ago, she added the tiara and sash to her attire, in a nod to her acquired nickname: “Biosecurity Queen.”

“I thought, let’s literally just dress it up and take it on the road,” Dr. Helm says. “Whatever the audience, wherever the place, if I’m talking biosecurity, I dress up.”

Dr. Julie Helm, DVM, dressed in blue jumpsuit, bouffant cap, tiara and sash that reads "Biosecurity Queen," standing in front of chicken paintings
Courtesy Julie Helm
Dressed in a tiara and sash, Dr. Julie Helm, DVM, has become known as the Biosecurity Queen.

As an employee at Clemson University’s Livestock Poultry Health Program, Helm also coordinates the National Poultry Improvement Plan for South Carolina. Part of her job is performing poultry necropsies as part of disease investigation. (CULPH serves as the state’s animal-health authority and veterinary diagnostic laboratory.) Helm has worked on an avian influenza response plan for the state and traveled around the Palmetto State doing what she calls “a road show and a lot of talks” about the avian influenza disease and how to avoid it after it became a global problem in 2005.

She tells poultry owners that by practicing biosecurity, they can protect their chickens and turkeys against diseases, including serious ones, such as avian influenza and exotic Newcastle disease. She offers simple steps that can be taken to keep birds healthy, such as cleaning shoes, tools and equipment to keep diseases from spreading from coop to coop or from farm to farm. 

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She gets her share of strange looks, and she’s been recognized while out at local stores—even without her costume—and her car sports a vanity license plate saying “Biosecurity Queen!” Although she likes to have fun with her job, she takes her role seriously.

“People do look at me funny, but they will obviously remember me dressed up in my tiara, bouffant cap, sash and boots,” Helm says. “I’m hoping when they remember this crazy, silly lady, they also remember how important biosecurity is in protecting their flocks.”

Originally from Vancouver, Wash., Helm did not grow up with chickens and had little desire to be a poultry veterinarian when she first studied at Oregon State University. A dog and cat lover, she planned to specialize in small animal medicine.

But after spending a few weeks interning with a turkey veterinarian, she decided poultry was her calling.

“[The vet] was in charge of overall poultry health, and he visited farms all the time and was always solving problems, putting out little fires,” Helm says.

Now her days are filled with “putting out little fires” of her own—from trying to figure out why egg production is down (frequently it’s the feed) to diagnosing diseases in sick or dying chickens. 

She has become the go-to person in her adopted state of South Carolina for all types of poultry questions and concerns.

“I had a lady who called and asked ‘How old do chickens live?’” Helm recalls. “I said, ‘A chicken living outdoors in southern weather—anywhere from five to 10 years.’ And she said ‘My hen is 23 years old.’ I said, ‘Well you are the record!’ That hen must have had a very long, pampered life.”

Helm lives on 35-acre property in Elgin, S.C., but while she has other pets, chickens are not among them. When she visits a poultry farm, she cannot have been in contact with other poultry from one to two days in advance, so she settles for her six dogs and six cats.

Unlike some of its neighboring states, South Carolina, which has about 800 commercial poultry farms and a growing number of backyard breeders, has never had a serious outbreak of disease among its poultry.

“In South Carolina so far, we have been very lucky,” she says. “We haven’t had a serious poultry disease to deal with. Our neighbors have. Virginia and North Carolina both had a mild strain of avian influenza in 2002, which seriously affected many poultry farms. That outbreak brought about the development of the current national avian influenza monitoring program and all the education we’ve been doing and that the USDA has been doing.”

So perhaps the tiara and sash are having the impact she had hoped for.

“People obviously remember me, and I’m hoping they remember my message: that biosecurity is very important for disease prevention and protecting animals in agriculture,” Helm says.

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